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Around 500 people gather for nightlife blackout protest in Brussels

People gather for a protest action calling for the boycott of bars following multiple testimonies from victims of sexual violence in two bars in the Ixelles quarter in Brussels, Friday 12 November 2021. (BELGA PHOTO PAUL-HENRI VERLOOY)
06:46 15/11/2021

Between 400 and 500 people, mostly young women, gathered on Friday evening in the centre of Brussels to protest against sexual aggression in Brussels' cafes and clubs.

In addition to the demonstration, there was also a boycott of cafes and bars in the capital in response to what the organisers say is a lack of commitment on the part of owners who don’t do enough to protect customers in their establishments.

Instead of meeting at a cafe, the organisers of the "Nightlife Blackout" created a safe space on Place de l'Albertine on Friday evening for women, trans men, non-binary people and victims of sexual violence. Groups of friends huddled together with drinks, before representatives of several women's collectives gave speeches to loud cheers. "Having different collectives come to speak is important because it's a struggle that's being supported by a lot of women," said Dounia Salimi of Balance Ton Bar.

According to Anna Toumazoff of the Intersectional Feminist Union, Ufia, "the hospitality industry has not responded sufficiently to the testimonies of sexual violence in nightlife. I also can't believe that the catering operators did not know that such things happen."

The organisers of the Nightlife Blackout therefore had a clear message for the Brussels cafe owners: "You can no longer count on our money, as long as things do not change. If it doesn't change in the bars, then we won't go there any more," shouted one, prompting the crowd to chant "Who owns the bars? The bars are ours!"

Politicians were also held accountable. "If things don't change on the street, we won't go outside any more,” said one representative from Ufia. “If people continue to harass us on public transport, we will no longer use it. If it can't be done safely, don't count on us women any more."

"This is the only way things change," said one attendee who was at the demonstration with her two daughters "in the hope that they can later go out in a safe environment.

There is still work to be done, said another of the demonstrators: "Going out as a woman is tiring. You can't dance quietly without a constant wave of male looks and comments. Women are very often sexualised in nightlife."

That is why the activists, through Maguy Ikulu of Ufia, demand "that cafe owners take measures such as sensitising their staff or firing employees who are guilty of sexual violence".

That demand has been heard for some time at collective Balance Ton Bar. Since its creation a month ago, the Instagram page "balance ton bar'" has received a tidal wave of testimonies from women who were victims of sexual violence while out at night in Brussels. The page was created after an investigation was started into cases of rape and sexual assault by a bartender at Café Waff in Ixelles.

The movement now has a reach far beyond the Brussels region. The founders of the Instagram page also coordinate a "balance ton bar'" Instagram account in several French cities, including Nantes, Cannes, Montpellier and Lille.

According to the police, about 500 demonstrators eventually descended on the Place de l'Albertine, including delegations from Namur, Liège, Flanders and even Paris. The demonstration passed without incident.

After the speeches, several hundred demonstrators remained on the square to drink, dance and sing in a friendly atmosphere.

From a political point of view, people seem to have understood the message. On Friday, the Wallonia-Brussels Federation recognised five associations that work on the fight against violence against women. Each of these associations will receive an amount of €75,000 over five years to focus on the prevention of and fight against violence and sexism.

The Brussels by Night federation announced on Friday that the members of the Brussels night council, which was founded at the beginning of last year, are taking steps to make Brussels nightlife more inclusive and safer. They hope to be able to introduce the first measures later this month.

Written by Nick Amies